In a poignant war poem written by ‘Robert Binyon, the melancholy lines dedicated to martyrs contain a solemn promise;
“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We shall remember them”
The wordings of the Kohima memorial “… For your tomorrow, we gave our today” is perhaps the most remembered and revered epitaph known to most soldiers/ veterans and even many of our civilian brethren.
Interestingly in the earlier days, war memorials were only built to celebrate a big military victory or to salute the King or general who lead the campaign resulting in victory. The dead soldiers were often consigned to mass unmarked graves, unsung and quickly forgotten. The famous ‘Arc de Triomphe’ in Paris or the Nelsons Column in Trafalgar Square at London have no names of dead soldiers inscribed on them. These memorials were meant to celebrate triumph over their adversary. It is only in the nineteenth century post the Napoleonic wars that war memorials with names of dead soldiers inscribed on them in some form stated being built. These were often built by collections from the locals or church funds. The Men in Gate Memorial, in Ypres Belgium, is perhaps the first memorial ever built to salute ‘The Unknown Soldier’. The exceedingly well maintained war cemetery at Ypres has many graves of Indian soldiers who died in the First World War. Every day since 1929 at 8Pm sharp without fail the last post is reverently sounded in the memorial arch by 6 buglers, followed by a minutes silence, ending with the traditional ‘revile’. A modest yet very dignified ceremony practiced unfailingly for nearly 85 years.
It is an apt saying that “A nation which does not honour its war dead is perhaps a nation not worth fighting for!” It is with this backdrop that a lot of people in the country, soldiers and the general populace alike have welcomed the much delayed announcement by the government of constructing a national war memorial in New Delhi, to commemorate all those who made the supreme sacrifice in the service of the nation. The design final location of the memorial is bound to generate heat and debate as there are strong opinions by many on this rather emotive issue! However the underlying spirit and the noble cause of paying true obeisance to our fallen comrades and to inspire the coming generations must not be lost sight of in the ensuing din of contending arguments.
Some of the most respected and revered memorials are perhaps a large piece of imaginatively carved rock or granite. It is more desirable to have a monument which strikes an emotive chord or connect rather than a grandiose monument, where the architectural mastery draws more wows, than the memory of the many kindred souls of the known and unknown soldier. It is therefore important for us to create a climate and atmosphere where the solemnity of the occasion and genuine respect for the martyrs is fostered across the length and breadth of the country spanning all generations. Sadly as country we do not have a sense of history or a military tradition where in the respect for the martyrs can be taken for granted or easily incubated. We often get together on various anniversaries at different memorials for short ceremonies, high in ceremonial and visual content, but lacking in a deeper yet abiding gratitude and humility for the gift of ‘Today’ bestowed on us by these silent heroes.
It is therefore for this reason sadly, that hundreds upon hundreds of small and medium sized memorials, which dot our country’s landscape, are not only in state of disrepair but also disrespect. I feel it is better not to construct a memorial than to let it suffer the ignominy of neglect. We as soldiers and veterans must take the lead in creating an environment and foster a movement where the groundswell of public opinion is shaped to give true respect to our fallen soldiers and by extension to the war memorials.
These edifices should become the symbols of national pride, patriotism and a source of unending inspiration to one and all and especially the young, to learn to love ones country selflessly and constantly. The national war memorial envisaged in the capital city I hope will live up to these lofty ideals.
Lt Gen Sudhir Sharma,PVSM, AVSM,
YSM, VSM,(Retd) is the Chairman of
MitKat Advisory Services, India’s
leading premium risk consultancy. He
hails from the Brigade of Guards.